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Racing from the Great White North PUBLIC ACCESS

At Six Years and Counting, a Canadian Company Sees the Home Stretch in its Quest to Create the $225,000 Supercar.

[+] Author Notes

Associate Editor

Mechanical Engineering 120(12), 64-66 (Dec 01, 1998) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.1998-DEC-4

Abstract

This article focuses on Motion Concept Vehicles Inc.’s (MCV) in Mississauga, ON, which is creating a $225,000 supercar. When the idea was born, the car was to run on natural gas, or methane—hence, the car’s original name, CH4, as in the chemical nomenclature for the gas’s operative compound. The prototype has already hit the Toronto streets and runs on natural gas. The engine in the CH4 prototype is a General Motors 4.6-liter, multivalve V8, converted to run on natural gas. The maker of the gasoline engine that will power the first production models is still being determined. MCV had a strong enough story to attract optical scanning leader Steinbichler and alias/wavefront, the Silicon Graphics subsidiary that builds software for designing and refining surfaces. MCV must bring the design geometry up to so-called class A surfaces within the alias/wavefront software environment, which is called SurfaceStudio 9 in its latest release. This process of perfecting a car's surfaces to be both structurally and mechanically sound as well as aesthetically pleasing takes a fraction of the time it took in the days of clay models, the companies point out.

Article

How do you explain the motivation to spend nearly a decade forming, financing, and managing a company to design, build, and sell a supercar-from the ground up? Robert J. Waddell, president of Motion Concept Vehicles Inc. in Mississauga, Ontario, took more than a moment to do that.

"It's really just that all the people in the company are car nuts," he said, determined to come up with an explanation. With two more years and thousands of engineering decisions to go, that may be Car Nuts, with a capital C and a capital N.

Waddell, MCV's three other fulltime employees, and an unnamed "angel" investor are seeing the company through a journey that began in 1992 and could be complete in about two years. If all goes according to plan, the first buyer will then be driving a production model of the mid-engine MCV sportscar (which is not yet officially named) that cost about $225,000. Or, in the case of some enthusiasts, the buyer will be encasing the supercar in glass, never to be driven, only admired.

When the idea was born, the car was to run on natural gas, or methane—hence the car's original name, CH4, as in the chemical nomenclature for the gas's operative compound.

The prototype has already hit the Toronto streets and runs on natural gas. "We've done work related to alternative fuels," Waddell said with characteristic modesty.

The company has taken consulting contracts in that field and others "to pay the rent," as he puts it. Some of that work has been MCV's design for a hybrid automotive power source, which would use hydrogen and an electric generator.

However, the production car will run on gasoline, he said. Natural gas will be an aftermarket option. Why the change in plan? "The main issue has more to do with some emissions-compliance issues and market development," Waddell said.

"In a small company, it's difficult to certify customized engines for emissions compliance to the degree it is necessary," he said." It makes sense for us to use an engine as it comes, where the whole package complies with emissions standards.

"The market for natural gas cars has not developed to the extent that we thought it would," Waddell said with some regret. He still believes natural gas is a good, clean, alternative fuel.

Canadian utilities Consumers Gas and Union Gas (through its Trillium subsidiary), fuel injection specialist GFI Control Systems, and cylinder-maker Dynetek have been active sponsors of the CH4. They all will participate in supplying the aftermarket gas conversion equipment, Waddell said.

The engine in the CH4 prototype is a General Motors 4.6-liter, multivalve V8, converted to run on natural gas. The maker of the gasoline engine that will power the first production models is still being determined.

The weight-to-power ratio expected is approximately 5: 1; the 2,300 - to 2,400- pound car will be run by a 400- to 450-horsepower engine. Waddell said it should go from zero to 60 mph in four to five seconds. The exact specifications will come out when MCV makes its final engine decision.

MCV's biggest engineering challenges do not lie in the Detroit or computer chip style of the "volume manufacturing game." Waddell said , "We're only planning on building 350 cars. It's a very different mindset. It's more like aircraft production."

Tooling for and building the MCV car may not be a volume manufacturing game, but the same kind of cost restriction is there. Waddell and his team are engineering the sports car like a $1 million Indy car to sell for less than $250,000.

The car is not designed for a specific racing car circuit standard like Formula 1, so buyers will be wealthy enthusiasts without a penchant for trophies. But in the interest of craftsmanship, MCV is taking a professional race car approach by designing its own chassis and car body. In modern racing, that chassis takes all of the load inputs, so it must be extremely strong.

Other than Formula 1, few of the world 's race car teams and no big motorcar companies take on this engineering task. Instead, racers buy from the world. renowned car constructors like Lola, Reynard , or G-Force, all of Britain, which is the world race car engineering hub, or Swift Engineering of California, Waddell pointed out.

These race car craftsmen "make pretty much the whole car," Waddell noted, so teams buy a rolling chassis that usually includes everything but an engine. The team may put in an engine and a gearbox, but " usually the car manufacturer fits everything." MCV is doing all that work for its road car.

The chassis is full-carbon fiber composite construction; the work, including layering and autoclaving, is done on-site near Toronto. The composite, by Waddell's estimate, will be one-seventh the weight of the same frame of steel, but will match steel in strength and durability. "The steel guys are improving that," Waddell notes, but a 7:1 weight-to-strength ratio is typical for carbon fiber structures.

Waddell and Christian Jansen, MCV's development manager, are in the midst of deciding just how many layers of the carbon fiber "pre-preg" the chassis needs, particularly at its greatest load points. The strength increases with each layer.

For instance, in the areas where the suspension bolts to the chassis , the layers will be 12 deep. Portions of the car body with the least load may have as few as three or four layers. Waddell, though, sees the range of layers in the chassis staying at six to 12.

To make those assessments, MCV is constructing the solid models in Parametric Technology Co.'s Pro-Engineer system , and examining the stresses with Mechanica, which is the same company's finite-element-analysis package.

That much is very similar to what race car builders do. But, Waddell said, "Our mandate as a road car is different than a pure race car. Race cars will be designed right to the limits." A race car chassis can be designed with just enough stiffness to handle well under hard braking at high speeds, for example, though not so much strength that unnecessary weight must be propelled. MCV cannot count on its car being lifted onto a trailer after a race.

Between the layers of carbon fiber "pre-preg," the composite pre-impregnated with epoxy resin, Waddell said, will be a honeycombed core of aluminum, Nomex (a specialized, proprietary material) , or foam. Akzo Nobel's Fortafil composite business, which is listed as a sponsor of the car, became involved at this stage.

The molds for the "composite sandwich" construction of the chassis will yield two monolithic parts, an upper and lower structure that will be bonded together to complete the chassis. Waddell contrasts this with the dozens of metal-stamped parts that go into a conventional motorcar.

MCV is also taking a 21st-century approach to finalizing the body styling and surface design, which will have the car body constructed of the same composite sandwich.

For comparison, if one assumes the entire prototype-to-production process takes one month, Waddell said, the latest scanning and data collections as well as surface refining systems have taken that down to three weeks.

MCV had a strong enough story to attract optical scanning leader Steinbichler and alias/wavefront, the Silicon Graphics subsidiary that builds software for designing and refining surfaces.

Mike Burgess, president of Steinbichler USA in Detroit, makes a strong case for the prowess of his company's Comet scanner. It is not a single-point laser scanner, but rather uses white light (fi·om a ISO-watt halogen globe) and triangulation in software to sample 420,000 data points in a SOO-square-millimeter field at one time.

In seven hours, the Comet system modeled the entire car by gathering 36 million data points with individual x-, y-, and z -axis locations. The Comet's industrial-caliber digital camera that captures 420 ,000 pixels gathers the x and y points, and computation of the distance to the model gets the z .

From the surface created by this "cloud of points," a polygon mesh can be created. That mesh made from the surface eventually goes directly into the milling programs that generate numerical code for machine programming.

But before milling is set, MCV must bring the design geometry up to so-called "class A surfaces" within the alias /wavefront software environment, which is called SurfaceStudio 9 in its latest release. That process of perfecting a car's surfaces to be both structurally and mechanically sound as well as aesthetically pleasing takes a fraction of the time it took in the days of clay models, the companies point out.

MCV will get to "a final version of surface geometry that's going to go to production tooling," Al Lopez of alias / wavefront explained. The surface lines "have to be highly accurate and precise in terms of meeting the engineering criteria, while at the same time, they have to be of very high quality from an aesthetic standpoint," he added. "They must have very smooth continuity; they have to reflect light very cleanly and beautifully."

Class A does not refer to any set of standards, but is a rather objective car industry phenomenon that differs from company to company and may be called class 1, or just "production tooling ready." Lopez noted that these standards may be rigorously defined and delineated by an automaker. In essence, these are the surfaces that, when seen on a sports car, prompt an excited "wow."

In other words, the kind of surfaces that breed car nuts.

What MCV Won't Do

MOTION CONCEPT VEHICLES knew enough from the beginning not to try to do it all. For instance, the company, which is designing the body and chassis of its supercar, is acquiring many elements of the final design from established parts suppliers for world-class high-performance automobiles. MCV must do two things: meet all U.S. and Canadian safety standards and keep the price far below racing's typical $1 million tab for a top-of-the-line race car.

A look at the suppliers for the MCV supercar shows just how sophisticated car parts can be when one is not working with everyday commercial price constraints. Of course, Pirelli tires are part of the program. Specifications also call for Hyperco suspension coils, Schroth seat belts, and light assemblies from Hella, to name a few.

The list of suppliers is still incomplete, as MCV is still making final decisions on engine and transmission components.

The seats, brakes, and rims are being outsourced. Hella's German automotive colleague Mannesmann VDO AG, the Frankfurt-based instrument maker, is involved through its VDO Kienzle worldwide trade-sales organization.

Automotive suppliers know Logansport, Ind.-based Hyperco because its roots are in the former Rockwell spring and stamping operation. Matthew Warren Co. purchased that Rockwell manufacturing facility and is now the corporate parent of Hyperco, which is the design and distribution arm for high-performance parts.

Hyperco supplies its suspension coils to every Indy race car team, and to hundreds of other race car endeavors. These coils enable chassis setup within five or 10 thousandths of an inch, Hyperco says. The coils are manufactured from chrome silicon steel that goes through magnaflux surface inspections, both before manufacture and after coiling.

MCV's president, Robert Waddell, said dampers for the brake components are coming from Dynamic Suspensions, the Multimatic subsidiary based in Markham, Ontario. (Pittsburgh-based brake giant Monroe had been involved, but has since decided to exit the high-end business.)

Another clear example of how sophisticated car parts can get is the Schroth seat belts MCV will use. Schroth is a Boulder, Colo., automotive design house. The seat belts, or restraints as Schroth terms them, combat the issue of submarining, which is the tendency for the driver or passenger to slide under a lap belt in a collision. As the company describes it, an inertial reel and motion sensor are positioned on the in-board strap of Schroth's double shoulder harness.

The reel is deployed by the force of instant deceleration, and it forces the driver's torso and hips to rotate slightly into an asymmetrical posture, which tightens the lap belt milliseconds faster and helps minimize the risk of submarining. This does not require the possibly painful crotch strap that other racing harnesses do, Schroth notes.

Schroth uses a polyamide webbing for the restraint to minimize the forces during the rebound phase of an accident. Polyamide does not have the "rubber band" effect that other webbings can have; the elongation rates of the webbing are said to be better for reducing stress to the body. The polyamide material also has a high transversal stiffness for better load spreading.

If history is any criterion, mass-produced cars will someday carry some or all of these advancements. In that way, MCV's and the world's race car programs might be compared to NASA, in that the most demanding engineering obstacles are overcome for the overall, long-term benefit of other engineering disciplines.

The Comet optical scanning system from Steinbichler bounces white light from a 150-watt halogen globe off a 500-square-millimeter area into an industrial charge-coupled device of 420,000 pixels. Some 420,000 data points are generated at once, and a car the size of the MCV supercar is digitized in seven hours.

Grahic Jump LocationThe Comet optical scanning system from Steinbichler bounces white light from a 150-watt halogen globe off a 500-square-millimeter area into an industrial charge-coupled device of 420,000 pixels. Some 420,000 data points are generated at once, and a car the size of the MCV supercar is digitized in seven hours.

The Canadian sports car as depicted in “SurfaceStudio" CAE software from alias/wavefront. The image was generated from the 36 million data points collected by Steinbichler's surface scanning system.

Grahic Jump LocationThe Canadian sports car as depicted in “SurfaceStudio" CAE software from alias/wavefront. The image was generated from the 36 million data points collected by Steinbichler's surface scanning system.

Copyright © 1998 by ASME
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